Who? Famed Writers Once, Now Obscure
Do you ever discover writers famous in their time who now have slipped into obscurity? A bit sad, how writers can be at the top of their field, but years later hardly anyone recognises their contributions or even their names. Do you know these three artists?
Alice Duer Miller 1874-1942
Miller was born into a well-known and once-wealthy New York family. When she started college in 1895 to study maths and astronomy, she helped pay for her tuition by selling her poetry, novels and essays.
She campaigned for women’s suffrage, writing satirical poetry that appeared in the New York Tribune before being published as a collection, Are Women People? The title-question became a rallying call for the movement.
Her success was assured when her stories and short novels were developed as plays and films. She also had the lucrative job of developing movie scripts for Hollywood. She was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers, actors, and critics who got together at New York’s Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s.
Her most famous work is her 1940 verse novel,The White Cliffs. An American woman marries an upper-class Englishman, who is killed in WWI, leaving her with a young son. At the start of WWII, she worries about her son, now grown up and in his father’s old regiment, but agrees with him that England is worth dying for. Like him, she does ‘not wish to live’ if it means existing ‘in a world in which England is finished and dead’. The novel sold almost a million copies world-wide and was later made into a film, The White Cliffs of Dover, starring Irene Dunne.
Mika Waltari 1908 –1979
Waltari, a Finnish writer, published his first book when he was 17. As well as working as a journalist and critic, writing reviews and articles, he wrote 29 novels, 26 plays, 15 novellas, six collections of stories and fairy tales, six poetry collections, screen and radio plays, nonfiction and translations.
In 1945, he wrote the hugely successful historical novel, The Egyptian. An abridged English translation by Naomi Walford was published in 1949. The main character, Sinuhe, a royal physician during the rule of Pharaoh Akhenaten, tells his story while in exile after the end of the pharaoh’s reign. The book was translated into 40 languages. In the USA, the book topped the bestseller lists in 1949 and remained the best-selling foreign novel until the early 1980s, when it was overtaken by Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In 1954, it was made into an epic film, starring Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Gene Tierney. The sets were later recycled for The Ten Commandments.
Neysa McMein 1888-1949
Although not a writer, American commercial artist Neysa McMein had strong literary connections. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, she painted covers for some of America’s most popular magazines: Saturday Evening Post, McCall, Liberty, Women’s Home Companion.
Like Alice Miller, she was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, and was acquainted with well-known writers such as Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber and Dorothy Parker.
In the late 1930s, when her art style became less popular, she turned to portrait painting. Famous subjects who sat for her included American presidents, musicians, and writers such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Her most enduring and best-known portrait is book-related—Betty Crocker, the fictional housewife whose eponymous cookbook is now in its tenth edition and available as an iTUNES app. The fame of the creation has far outstripped that of its creator.